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Country Gentleman: Angels of hope

A wren is seen perched in a tree in the Afan Woodlands. (Photo courtesy of the C. W. Nicol Afan Woodland Trust)

After the earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011, we invited people traumatized by the disaster to come and stay with us in our Afan Woodland Trust woods here in northern Japan. Twenty-seven adults and children from Higashimatsushima, Miyagi Prefecture, visited us the following August. This resulted in a lasting friendship and a request from the city to help relocate a new elementary school to higher ground and to bring diversity and a healthy learning ecology to a woodland adjacent to the new school and with easy access.

Miyanoura Mori no Gakko was completed, and in January of 2017 teachers and students moved in. This new school replaced the elementary schools of Nobiru and Miyato.

When I went to Higashimatsushima for the first time in November 2011, I was deeply moved and saddened by the sight and recounts of the horrendous devastation and human loss. But at the same time I was greatly impressed with the efforts that were being put into cleanup and recovery. One place to which we were taken was a ruined middle school. So much earth had been shifted or eroded that the sea now lapped at the school's outer walls.

As I stood outside, looking out at the sea from whence such a force for grief had come, a formation of swans came winging in. They passed right overhead, honking to each other, their strong pinions whistling. The sight of the swans lifted my depression and brought a surge of hope to my heart!

These swans breed in the tundra of eastern Russia then migrate to Japan between Honshu and Sakhalin islands via the north coast of Hokkaido at the beginning of winter, returning north at the onset of spring. Swans are admirable creatures; they mate for life and stick together as families.

I was also taken to where the sea had reclaimed its own, inundating over 70 hectares of paddy fields. Hundreds, if not thousands of water birds were happily swimming; swans, geese, ducks, mergansers, coots, cormorants, gulls and others. Ospreys were hunting fish while herons and other waders stood and foraged all around. The water teemed with young mullet, and already tiny oysters and other shellfish were growing on submerged and broken concrete.

I submitted a proposal that this site should be preserved a wetland and waterfowl memorial and developed for ecotourism. As a result Sir Graham Fry, former ambassador of Britain to Japan, and by this time a board member of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust in Britain, came to Higashimatsushima to see the waterfowl for himself. He agreed enthusiastically with my proposal, which would not only enhance the local ecology, including fisheries, but would also bring in tourists, especially bird watchers, during the winter when migrating bird such as swans returned.

However, bureaucrats and politicians had decided that monstrous sea walls should be built. The flooded paddy fields would be pumped dry and restored to rice farming.

Seven years have passed. There are still some thirty hectares of wetland with several big reedy ponds. Lots of birds use them as a refuge and resting place. In early November this year we got the funding to bring Dr. Matthew Simpson from the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust to come from Britain to Japan to give us advice. WWT has 10 reserves and visitor centres in Britain and is globally active in wetland research and conservation, including in Korea, China and Taiwan. WWT was founded in 1946 by Sir Peter Scott. Its patron was Queen Elizabeth (until she recently retired) and its president is Prince Charles.

There are many problems to solve and of course we must involve the local people. If we succeed, a sanctuary for water birds will be established, along with strong international bonds. This, I believe, is my last lifework. We appreciate any advice and support.

("Country Gentleman" is a regular column by author and conservationist C.W. Nicol)

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